Vinoth Ramachandra

Political Apologies

Posted on: June 18, 2010

On 30 January 1972 a civil rights march on the streets of Londonderry in Northern Ireland turned into a scene of mass carnage. Trigger-happy soldiers of the elite British paratroop regiment opened fire on the unarmed marchers, killing 14 men, some as young as seventeen, and injuring thirteen others. That day, known henceforth as Bloody Sunday, proved a watershed in the Irish conflict. The nonviolent civil rights movement was abandoned as thousands of men and women joined the ranks of the Provisional IRA. More than six thousand people died in the violence that gripped Northern Ireland and spilled over to the British mainland.

This week the Saville Report, the culmination of a 38-year old campaign by families of the dead and a 12-year investigation by the British government (the longest in its history) into the events of Bloody Sunday, was released. It vindicated the innocence of those who died, thereby overturning the conclusions of a slipshod investigation by a British judge, Lord Widgery, a few months after the killings. Prime Minister David Cameron, introducing the Saville Report in a speech to the House of Commons,  made a fulsome apology on behalf of the nation and its government to the families of those who had died. The apology, although nearly four decades late,  was received with jubilation by the people of Londonderry.

Nations are not like individuals, but political leaders can have an enormous impact on the way individuals come to terms with the painfulness of the nation’s past. Acknowledging the wrongdoings of politicians, police forces and armies makes individuals feel that they are being recognized as persons and that their suffering is not belittled. It also honours the memory of their loved ones, however belatedly; and the desire to honour the dead can be a powerful incentive for seeking revenge. Apologies can drain that desire for revenge.

Can, but not will. There is nothing automatic about the process of national healing. Even if political apologies lead to the prosecution or resignation of those responsible (and, in most cases, they should), there are no guarantees that reconciliation will follow. Apologies can be rejected by those who would prefer to cling to a monolithic  identity as “victims”. It can also lead to justification for continued violence against the state. And, on the part of those who support the state and its military, there is usually a considerable psychic investment in the nation’s “heroes”- often the elite combat regiments whose exploits are celebrated in popular fiction and films. An apology can be taken by the latter as a betrayal of the whole regiment or even the army itself. Every nation needs its “heroes”, and admitting that its heroes were guilty of war crimes or other unlawful killings can threaten the “good us versus evil them” discourses on which many nations and communities build their moral identities.

However, even if truth and justice are insufficient, and impossible to achieve except in a very limited way, they are indispensable for healing between people and nations. They undermine collective self-righteousness. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. And it is not from the powerful but from the powerless that forgiveness is offered. The Crucified One is the ultimately innocent victim who breaks the link between guilt and suffering. This is no cheap forgiveness that ignores truth and justice, but a costly forgiveness that makes possible new beginnings and new relationships, based not on power but radical equality. Every act of forgiveness is creative, shattering the stereotyped images and myths we carry of each other, refusing to treat the other the way we ourselves have been treated, and thus creating new possibilities for the future.

Dare we hope that David Cameron’s example will be imitated by leaders in countries such as Sri Lanka, Israel, India, or the USA? In the case of Sri Lanka, where I live, the prospects are frankly bleak. Draconian emergency laws are still in force and wielded against anybody who dares to suggest that atrocities were committed by all sides in the 30-year war that ended last year. The ruling regime continues the rhetoric of a “war against terrorists” and is unwilling to support any independent investigation of war crimes or human rights abuses by the nation’s “heroes” and the shadowy paramilitary groups that have operated with impunity for so long. In the dominant religious culture, apologies are seen as signs of weakness rather than strength, and voluntary resignations by public officials are completely unheard of! In such a climate, may addressing the immediate physical needs of all war victims and their families, especially those Tamils still languishing in detention camps, be the first step in the healing process?

3 Responses to "Political Apologies"

As often he does, one more time Vinoth writes and invite us to a complex political sphere where religiosity, social ethics and even anthropology contributes to the dynamics of power politics.

Confessing, asking, and granting forgiveness is an ancient political act often to do with the repairing of structural politics between the agency and actors who desires new arrangements of the social contract. Originally it seems the non state actors, Socrates, Jesus, Galileo and many others who questioned and challenged the societal order were forced apologies and we know the results.

It is in the postcolonial, particularly post British colonial politics that a genre of discourse of apologizing appears. Then after the WW II the apology politics found its way into the actual power politics culminating in the South African TRC- post TRC deliberation. In recent times, Australia, Canada and the Vatican have asked forgiveness from the first nations and other victims. In Canada there is a First Nation council which is urging its fellows to publicly accept the apology and confirm forgiveness. Yet asking and granting forgiveness seems such a Judeo-Christian ethos due its nature of the revealed personification of God and religion. In realized religions there cannot be a possibility of forgiveness to neutralize the forces of Karma. And it is for this reason that Cambodian, Ugandan and even Rwandan attempt of a TRC failed without much results.

Verba has decades ago argued that the politic of a state is largely governed by the civic culture the primary reflection of the (non-)religious beliefs of that society. In that respect, asking and giving forgiveness is still an act that is stemming from the social civic psyche of a nation and state. In Sri Lanka both the state and the non-state actor/s are not convinced of their bloody and murderous past or present. Both still justify and continue to reconstruct the same trajectory. This reflects on the civic culture and the way both the Thamils, Sinhalas and teh state understand themselves and define the other in the realm of power politics.

Dr Ramachandra, I know very little of Sri Lanka. I know slightly more of Northern Ireland. I appreciate that you write of the need for the state to recognise when its forces do wrong. Forgiveness has great power.

But in relation to this news item, the Republicans want to have their cake and eat it. The existence of N.I. is steeped in history – from a time when England by old rights ‘owned’ Ireland, so planted it, etc.: by our modern standards wrong, but technically acceptable by the time. Through to the 1900s when democratically, it was created as a compromise: the majority of citizens of the 6 counties wanted to remain British; the south did not – so a democratic compromise. The fact of subsequent discrimination against the minority is unjustifiable. But it didn’t create the terrorism (it merely fueled its participation).

I have read your ‘global myths’, particularly on state terrorism. There are evidently wrongs on both sides (internment without trial being a clear wrong). But when a state existed by the democratic will of the majority, in NI, a few decided to wage ‘war’ on their own people, civilians to overturn the democratic decision of the majority.

We have heard David Cameron’s apology for the wrongs of scared, uncontrolled soldiers sent on one afternoon to find an enemy which often hid among civil rights marches. We have never got an apology from those who led the IRA. You call for the prosecution or resignation of those responsible. Rather than those in the IRA who regularly bombed and shot civilians, being prosecuted, they were released and lead in government. Perhaps since we elect government to wield the sword, we can ask that they be more accountable. That is right. But the IRA want to hold the government to account for unlawful killing of civilians. Meanwhile, they, who used to murder as policy, are in goverment. The Unionists are going to find it very hard to truly acknowedge wrong in this matter, while ex-IRA leaders parade it triumphalistically with no remorse, apology, or acknowledgement of wrong themselves.

I wish I’d be around in those days to march in civil rights marches, as a Protestant (by conviction, not culture), campaigning for equal rights of employment, etc., for Catholics. But I say, growing up, I had no naïve thoughts of soldiers as heros – I was just jolly thankful they were there. When everyone knows someone who has been killed by the IRA, when one of my childhood memories is of standing with my mother with a lantern in a blackout in the middle of the night because the hotel in my street had been bombed again; when I recall the regularity with which my father would call from a phonebox to say they’d had to vacate his Christian bookshop because of a bomb scare, and indeed, when before my time the shop was firebombed because he wouldn’t pay into the IRA ‘protection racket‘, then one is thankful for soldiers constantly working to protect us from that terrorism. It mustn’t give them a blank cheque, and Bloody Sunday was indeed unjustifiable, but by and large, it was not state terrorism, and it was not a war. The IRA had a very effective PR machine.

Perhaps the age of apology is upon us. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has ‘officially’ apologized to Aboriginal people who suffered in the residential school system set up by the government of Canada and administered for a time by churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, United. For many, it was a dreadful period of their lives, engendering a loss of language, culture, family life, with far-reaching consequences for Canadian Aboriginal society even yet.
“Confess your sins to one another, and be healed”, we are adjured. So while public confessions from government acknowledge the pain foisted on the original peoples of Canada, the healing will take many, many years, many generations; for many, forgiveness is at the time not possible. For many, a public apology is not enough. Monetary compensation has been made, but it is not enough. History is written on hearts and memory.
There are many variations on Bloody Sunday. And many variations on the amount of time it has taken governments to acknowledge their complicity in such events. It’s a start, perhaps.

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June 2010
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